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Bolsonaro's unpredictability is more of a threat than ever

Philipp Lichterbeck
Philipp Lichterbeck
April 1, 2021

Brazil is sliding deeper and deeper into crisis. But its president's course of action is a calculated one. It has an internal logic and consolidates his power, says Philipp Lichterbeck.

Man walking past mural showing a person in protective gear spraying disinfectant
Brazil has one of the highest COVID death rates in the worldImage: Silvia Izquierdo/AP Photo/picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Jair Bolsonaro thrives on chaos. He needs confrontation, provocation, contradiction. Constant conflict is what energizes him. This was the already true of him during his time as an army officer, when he allegedly planned to detonate a bomb in the bathroom of his barracks as part of his campaign for an increase in military salaries.

The pattern continued when he entered parliament in the early 1990s: It became his trademark to glorify the military dictatorship and wish death, violence and torture on others, in particular leftists and members of minority groups.

As president, Bolsonaro has perfected his taboo-breaking methodology. He and his sons, along with some members of parliament, advisers and propagandists, have bombarded Brazil with fresh lies and provocations on a weekly basis.

This serves to create the sense that the country is in a constant state of emergency. Petyr Baelish, the eminence grise behind those in power in the TV series "Game of Thrones," remarks that "Chaos is a ladder." This is the guiding principle of Bolsonarism. The ladder of the chaos Bolsonaro has incited is what he uses to climb ever higher, and to extend his power.

Philipp Lichterbeck
DW's Philipp Lichterbeck reports from Rio de JaneiroImage: Privat

The logic of Bolsonarism

It is in this context that we must consider this week's forced resignation of the three heads of the Brazilian armed forces. Right now, many observers talk about "chaos in Brazil" and predict the imminent end of Bolsonaro's presidency.

The most common interpretation at the moment is as follows: Courageous generals resisted Bolsonaro's attempt to instrumentalize the armed forces for his own purposes. The president wanted to deploy the army to challenge the COVID-19 lockdowns imposed by regional governors, but, by resigning, the heads of the army, navy and air force demonstrated that the military is not Bolsonaro's tool. Even the Brazilian left rejoiced at the generals' supposed good sense.

In fact, the internal logic of Bolsonarism is at work here. These events are part of a continual intensification of the crisis. In the midst of the worst phase of the coronavirus pandemic — on average, around 3,000 Brazilians are dying of COVID-19 every day — Bolsonaro has provoked a conflict with the top ranks of the military.

It is not a break with the military per se, but with the old guard, the men in its high command. It also sends a signal to the lower ranks, who are also more politically radical. "This is your chance" is the message to the younger officers, who have been more enthusiastic about Bolsonaro from the beginning; the generals regarded him as an outsider.

Virus runs rampant in Brazil

Hauling the three military chiefs over the coals indicates that Bolsonarism is becoming even more radical. It is no longer enough for the president to seek external enemies; now he is also eliminating those who are insufficiently Bolsonarist. This has already happened with various ex-ministers, and the approach is now being extended to veteran military leaders. Anyone who hesitates or voices criticism is considered a "traitor."

The definition of what constitutes Bolsonarism is thus becoming increasingly narrow, and the movement is likely to become even more paranoid, unpredictable, and dangerous.

Tactical considerations

On the other side of this week's events is the military, which is seen as showing a sense of political responsibility. In truth, the military continues to enable the Bolsonarian circus. More than 6,000 of its members are part of the government; around 340 are in paid positions. The military also runs almost a third of Brazil's federal companies.

The supposed rift between Bolsonaro and the military is therefore nothing of the sort. They agree on the main points: The interpretation of military dictatorship as a necessary revolution in order to thwart communism. The rejection of a judicial investigation of the dictatorship. The continued occupation and exploitation of the Amazon region.

The military chiefs' resignations were therefore prompted not so much by fundamental differences of opinion as by tactical considerations. The military is trying to distance itself from Bolsonaro's disastrous coronavirus policies. The generals have realized that they too may be blamed for the mounting daily death toll. So far, many observers have wanted to see the military as a pragmatic, counterbalancing force in the Bolsonaro government.

This myth is no longer sustainable. Brazil is facing self-inflicted disaster in its health care system. The military clearly wants to act as if it bears no responsibility for this. For Bolsonaro, the resulting confusion is an opportunity to fill important positions in the military apparatus with his henchmen.

This article was translated from German.